November 11, 2021, by Lexi Earl

Small Islands and Developing States, food systems and climate change

The food systems of Small Islands and Developing States are particularly susceptible to climate change. They therefore require different strategies and thinking on this challenge, argue Ee Von Goh,  Chiew Foan Chin, Christina Vimala Supramaniam, Andrew Clarke, and Pau Loke Show.

Small island developing states (SIDS) are disproportionately affected by climate change. SIDS are considered a distinct group, identified at the 1992 UN Conference on the Environment and Development, who face unique social, economic and environmental vulnerabilities. SIDS contribute less than 1% of total greenhouse gas emissions but, largely due to their geography, are among those countries that are the earliest and most severely impacted by climate change. SIDS are especially vulnerable to climate-change related disasters such as rising sea levels, hurricanes and cyclones, frequent floods, and droughts that bring about severe disruption to agriculture, fisheries and vital ecosystems. As a result, food security becomes an increasingly pressing issue, putting the lives and livelihoods of people in this region at great risk.

The Food Systems in Small Islands and Developing States (FSSIDS) consortium works to improve the resilience and adaptability of SIDS food systems (as well as those of developing states in the Asia Pacific region). We take a systems-based approach to our research, as food systems are complex networks of interrelated and interdependent activities from farm to fork throughout the food value chain. Demand for, and supply of, food are interlinked and need to be jointly addressed in order to adapt the SIDS food systems to the changing climate.

Produce at a market in Malaysia

On the supply side of the food value chain, we work to ensure the availability and quality of seeds and soil are adequate and appropriate for SIDS farmer needs. We are building capacity to help farmers on small islands adopt more resilient farming systems and practices, including diversification of crop varieties with more resilient, salinity tolerant and nutrient-dense species. We recognise the importance of good food storage and the necessary reduction of food waste. The ability to store food is an essential strength influencing the SIDS capacity to adapt to climate change and variability. We actively seek climate-smart post-harvest agricultural adaptation opportunities as climate change increases the risk and magnitude of post-harvest losses. For example, we can reduce post-harvest losses by applying edible coatings like gum arabic and chitosan to fresh produce.

Climate change adds an additional layer of complexity to our research at the demand end of the food value chain. Diets have become less diverse as small island developing states have become increasingly modernised and industrialised. Many nutritious and climate-resilient crop species, alongside their cultural heritage, are displaced by a modern globalised diet of uniform and processed food. For example, traditional Pacific Island diets consisted of nutrient-dense root crop staples supplemented with coconuts, fruits, and seafood. These have been increasingly replaced by inexpensive, convenient, high-calorie ultra-processed foods. Such transitions in diets shrink the diversity of the food basket people can choose from, and pose significant challenges for the diversification of crop production in the face of climate change. We thus translate crop production diversity to consumption diversity by creating consumer awareness and demand, and by improving desirability and marketability of different crops. For example, members of FSSIDS are working to fortify staple food with underutilised crops and are exploring new food processing methods to enhance their nutritional profiles and consumer acceptance.

Bambara groundnut pods (a yellow beige colour) on display below green winged beans. These crops form part of the food systems of small islands and developing states.

Bambara groundnuts and beans for sale at a market in Malaysia

The conservation of biocultural diversity and the sustainable use of diverse crops and plants for food and nutrition are essential for sustainable development and human well-being in small islands and developing states.  Hence, our research also focusses on indigenous knowledge and experiential learning processes to build the adaptive capacity of smallholder farmers and food processors to cope with increasingly uncertain futures.

In early September 2020, the Future Food Beacons at the University of Nottingham’s UK and Malaysia campuses jointly organised an international workshop on Food Security in Small Island Developing States (FSSIDS 2020). The workshop brought together more than 30 participants from 10 countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, in addition to the UK, to discuss, study and identify research gaps in issues related to food security in island nations.  The success of the workshop has led to the formation of the FSSIDS consortium which will see ongoing collaborative work among the researchers working in food-related projects in this region.

Further reading

Thomas, A., Baptiste, A., Martyr-Koller, R., Pringle, P., & Rhiney, K. (2020). Climate change and small island developing states. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 45, 1-27.

Khaliq, G., Mohamed, M. T. M., Ali, A., Ding, P., & Ghazali, H. M. (2015). Effect of gum arabic coating combined with calcium chloride on physico-chemical and qualitative properties of mango (Mangifera indica L.) fruit during low temperature storage. Scientia Horticulturae, 190, 187-194.

Ali, A., Noh, N. M., & Mustafa, M. A. (2015). Antimicrobial activity of chitosan enriched with lemongrass oil against anthracnose of bell pepper. Food packaging and shelf life, 3, 56-61.

Zahid, N., Maqbool, M., Ali, A., Siddiqui, Y., & Bhatti, Q. A. (2019). Inhibition in production of cellulolytic and pectinolytic enzymes of Colletotrichum gloeosporioides isolated from dragon fruit plants in response to submicron chitosan dispersions. Scientia horticulturae, 243, 314-319.

Sievert, K., Lawrence, M., Naika, A., & Baker, P. (2019). Processed foods and nutrition transition in the Pacific: Regional trends, patterns and food system drivers. Nutrients, 11(6), 1328.

Tan, X.L., Azam-Ali, S.H., Goh, E.V., Mustafa, M.A., Chai, H.H., Kuan Ho, W., Mayes, S., Mabhaudhi, T., Azam-Ali, S.N., and Massawe, F. (2020). Bambara groundnut: An underutilized leguminous crop for global food security and nutrition. Frontiers in Nutrition, 7, 276.

Hussin, H., Gregory, P. J., Julkifle, A. L., Sethuraman, G., Tan, X. L., Razi, F., & Azam-Ali, S. N. (2020). Enhancing the Nutritional Profile of Noodles With Bambara Groundnut (Vigna subterranea) and Moringa (Moringa oleifera): a food system approach. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, 4, 59.

Ng, Z. X., Than, M. J. Y., & Yong, P. H. (2021). Peperomia pellucida (L.) Kunth herbal tea: Effect of fermentation and drying methods on the consumer acceptance, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities. Food chemistry, 344, 128738.

Xiao, H. W., Pan, Z., Martynenko, A., Law, C. L., & Nema, P. K. (2018). Innovative and Emerging Drying Technologies for Enhancing Food Quality. Journal of Food Quality, editorial.


Ee Von Goh is a Research Associate in the School of Biosciences, and the Research Manager of the Future Food Beacon Malaysia at the University of Nottingham Malaysia. She is a public health nutritionist with specific expertise in nutritional epidemiology and nutrition-sensitive and sustainable food policy. Prior to this, she was a Research Fellow at the Crops For the Future Research Centre (CFFRC) where she was involved in interdisciplinary projects related to food value chain research and biocultural approaches to diversification of food production and consumption.

Chiew Foan Chin is an Associate Professor in Plant Biology in the School of Biosciences and a co-director of the Future Food Beacon Malaysia at the University of Nottingham Malaysia. Her research is focused on plant growth and development as well using omic technologies, particularly proteomics, to improve food crops including underutilized plants. Chiew Foan is a Fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy and a council member for Asia Oceania Agricultural Proteomics Organization (AOAPO). She is also the Founder and past President for the Malaysian Agricultural Proteomics Society (MAPS).

Christina Supramaniam is an Associate Professor of Molecular Plant Pathology in the School of Biosciences, University of Nottingham Malaysia. She is a co-director of the Future Food Beacon Malaysia. Her research interest is in sustainable and smart agriculture using evidence-based solutions for plant and soil regeneration. Prior to joining the University, Christina was the Head of the Research Division at an international biotechnology company.

Andrew Clarke is Assistant Professor in Archaeogenetics at the University of Nottingham, UK. His research is focused on the history of human–plant relationships, particularly on using genetics to understand the origins, selection, dispersal and future of crops. Prior to joining Nottingham in 2019, Andrew was a Fellow of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge. Follow Andrew on Twitter: @aclarkenz

Pau Loke Show is a Professor of Biochemical Engineering in the Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, University of Nottingham Malaysia. He is also the Director of the Sustainable Food Processing Research Centre and co-director of the Future Food Beacon Malaysia.  He has vast research experience in bioprocessing from upstream to downstream, separation and purification technology, and algae biorefinery engineering. Since beginning his career in 2012, he has received numerous prestigious domestic and international academic awards.

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